The Ireland 2040 National Planning Framework (NPF) currently under preparation, is tasked with providing a ‘framework for future development and investment in Ireland’ (Issues and Choices Consultation Paper). The consultation document makes clear that the NPF is intended to provide a high-level strategic policy document, working to coordinate the spatial aspects of a wide range of sectoral policies concerned with ‘housing, jobs, transport, education, health, environment, energy and communications’. The potential of strategic spatial policy to be provide a frame for the coordination of broad-scale policy objectives such as quality of life, prosperity and environmental sustainability and the development of place-based policy is explicitly addressed. It is evident that the NPF is intended to provide more than a reformulation of the politically-sensitive issue of balanced or effective regional development. It is also evident that it is not to be understood as ‘national plan’, prescribing where development should take place, as discussed previously on this blog here). Whereas the NPF will hopefully provide a central guiding framework for planning authorities, informing their decision-making and placing their work in a wider strategic context, this should not be understood as its primary function.

The NPF is asking to be taken seriously as cross-sectoral overarching framework for investment, rather than treated as a national plan to be ‘implemented’ by local authorities. These strategic cross-sectoral policy coordination policy coordination objectives are to be welcomed. The current context of Brexit-induced uncertainty calls for open dialogue, cross-sectoral communication and strategic stakeholder engagement, as Ireland-UK and by default, Ireland-EU and North-South relations are simultaneously re-ordered and re-worked. Indeed, this period of uncertainty calls for spatial public diplomacy. The NPF can play an important function in this context providing in particular a framework for working out island-of-Ireland perspectives and reaffirming existing commitments to cooperation in matters of spatial planning and regional development on a North-South basis.

The experiences of Wales and Scotland with strategic spatial planning furthermore demonstrate the potential of spatial strategies with strong cross-sectoral ambitions. The Scottish National Planning Frameworks build on a strong Scottish tradition of strategic planning and have played an important role as part of a broader ‘national conversation’ post-devolution. More importantly, they have served to focus policy attention on key projects of national importance and ‘spatial priorities for change’. The Wales Spatial Plan similarly was designed from the outset as an over-arching cross-sectoral framework, placing the work of the then newly established Welsh Assembly in a strategic spatial context and supporting joined-up thinking at a sub-regional level.

In order to be taken seriously and to have relevance as a framework at a strategic policy level outside of the Department of Housing, Planning Community and Local Government, however, the NPF needs to be explicitly linked to public sector investment decision-making. The National Spatial Strategy was of course, designed to give spatial expression to the National Development Plan with the Gateway Investment Fund as the bridge linking spatial and capital investment planning. Unfortunately, the GIF was one of the first items to go when budgets were cut and the decentralisation fiasco characteristically served to make the worst out of a bad situation. We should nevertheless expect and demand that the NPF contain explicit commitments regarding major infrastructure projects of national and regional importance, aligning the spatial framework with national transportation policy and other key sectoral policies. Debate on the NPF should focus on concrete substantive issues of strategic spatial significance such as outstanding commitments under Transport 21, sustainable energy and climate adaptation policy and the future of the border region in a time of uncertainty. NPF scenarios could focus on the spatial development implications of infrastructure investments and policy choices, providing informed insights into possible regional development dynamics in Ireland 2040. This of course is based on the perhaps naive assumption that the Irish Government is prepared to commit public funds to strategic investment projects rather than relying on private sector investment.

The NPF might also be expected to make funding commitments to support innovative regional development initiatives emerging from the bottom-up. It is possible to envisage a scenario where local authorities, business and community stakeholders could apply for capacity-building or small-scale investment funding on a competitive basis from funds administered by the three regional assemblies. Projects would be required to support the objectives of the NPF and to cross local authority boundaries, working with ‘functional territories’ in order to ensure strategic regional importance. Lessons can be learnt from urban-rural partnership programmes organised on a similar basis in Germany which have challenged metropolitan and rural districts to identify potential synergies and means of working together. Closer to home, the experiences of three Border Area Networks and work of ICLRD in developing common projects and strategies on a cross-border basis demonstrate the potential of this approach in the Irish context.

It is time for a mature debate on the substantive issues the NPF can and should address on a cross-sectoral basis, and time for the Government to commit to public investment aligned with national spatial policy.

Reminder: Submissions on the NPF consultation can be made until this Thursday 16th March (12 noon).

Cormac Walsh

To make a submission about the proposed NPF go to the website and follow the instructions provided; or email; or write to:

NPF Submissions, Forward Planning Section, Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Custom House, Dublin, D01 W6X0

It is always useful to get a response to ideas and theories, and Prionnsias Breathnach’s reponse to our recent publications on rural Ireland will assist in furthering the debate on Ireland’s replacement spatial strategy.

Our fundamental point is that any Irish Planning Region without a city is going to struggle, as exemplified with the two-tier performance of the recent severe economic downturn, 2008-to-date. With the State’s fragile spatial mass and absence of significant population centres, a future strategy for balance must recognise the need for ‘lumpiness’: not to control or stultify the GDA but in having the imperative and urgent need to grow the provincial cities to a size that substantially reduces the 2011 71% deficiency in its Zipf Rank Order Gini-coefficient deficit, wherein if Dublin = 100, Cork = just 17.5, Limerick’s 8, etc. As I have shown, this aggregate city population-shortfall is over one million.

Successful implementation of EU Balanced Regional Development (BRD) is based on the underlying, necessary, assumption that there already exists a second tier of cities. Unfortunately, in Ireland’s (Republic) case and using George Zipf’s Rank Size Order Rule as the test, there is a conspicuous absence – a set of missing teeth – in not having in 2015, a range of 200,000 to 600,000 populated cities. Had Buchanan been implemented in 1969, by now both Cork and Limerick would have achieved these parameters.

Bluntly, the absence of intermediate-sized cities makes the task of implementing BRD outside of the GDA as being unattainable; at least until such time as this pre-requisite exists.

Accordingly, Lorcan Sirr and I are advocating that there is a pressing need for the replacement (new) spatial strategy to focus on developing at least one city or large urban centre in every Planning Region, which is capable of urban agglomerating. Alonso’s paper of 1970, (vide Balchin, 1995: 49) at Fig. 2.12, suggested an X-axis minimum city size of 100,000, with subsequent growth to its inflection points ‘C’, ‘D’ and with in-migration, to ‘E’. How much more so does the minimum threshold population of a modern Irish city need to be in this post-industrial ‘knowledge’ era, so as to reach a size, where it can capture the benefits of urban agglomeration growth, with its attendant clustering effects? It is encouraging to see the benefits of perhaps three specific ‘types’ of clustering in Galway City but this is altogether too few – Dublin has twenty-five or so types. Hence, Galway’s population can still be comfortably accommodated in the 82,500 capacity of Croke Park!

As a country with limited capital resources, there is little prospect of Ireland attaining such results unless our spatial and economic strategies are to be aligned and focused towards that end. In practice, this means a severe spatial planning implementation approach to:

  • controlling one-off housing,
  • reversing the proliferation trend of over 200 hundreds new villages and small towns since 1996,
  • providing affordable housing in our cities in locations close to employment,
  • reducing the traffic congestion of long-distant commuting resulting from enforced population deflection,
  • the re-use of hundreds of hectares of languishing brown-field sites and thereby utilising existing infrastructure and schools, of improved urban design with double-duplex family housing units which have ground-level and roof-level gardens, and
  • anticipating in advance the emergence and recognition of new cities…e.g. the emergence of a sixth city with the impending agglomeration of Drogheda and Laytown-Bettystown-Mornington with a current, closing, gap of just 800 metres (Colp West to Donacarney): not 59 km, the distance between Athlone and Mullingar, a la the NSS ‘linkage’.

The extended economic downturn for nearly the last decade has shown rural Ireland’s severe unemployment and enforced emigration vulnerability and the resultant two-speed economic penalty for regions without cities. Unfortunately, this is likely to be repeated during future cyclical downturns. Thus an all-island approach is needed to ‘lever’ the north-west to the City of Derry, to maximising the potential of the Dublin-Belfast Economic Corridor; to focusing growth on proven centres such as Portlaoise, where the land-use/ transportation interface is evident. Its 2006-2011, its population growth was equivalent to the aggregate of the NSS Midland Gateway of Athlone, Tullamore and Mullingar. Why select Monaghan, Tuam, Mallow, etc. ahead of Portlaoise?

The ‘test’ for city-size thresholds would include locations that would be deemed suitable for ‘institutional-grade’ property investment locations acceptable to financial instruments such as Pension Funds, REITS, etc. Cities are a pre-requisite to economic ‘spillovers’.

Recent Regional Studies literature has focused on the prospects for New Economic Geography and New Urban Economic research combining to provide urban modelling. Our wish is for their scientific advancement, to include evidence-based empirical modelling. With empirical tools which could incorporate demographics, thereby advancing the earlier ’industrial era’ approach to city threshold size. Such modelling would be of particular value to smaller countries including Ireland – states that exhibit strong major city ‘primacy’.

One would wish for the new spatial and economic plan which is free of the harmful political ‘paw marks’ that bedevilled the 2002-2020 NSS, having perhaps fifteen or so nominated growth centres, limited to centres of 20,000 or more, with strong Daytime Working Population counts. Attempts to ‘twin’ or ‘treble’ linkages should be limited to locations that are already demonstrating urban agglomeration.

The World Bank (2008) correctly advocated ‘lumpiness’ and centripetal agglomeration as the way forward, for developing countries, to build their cities, nurture the nature and change of ‘work’ and thereby benefit from the ‘knowledge’ economy world that now is. Spatial planning-wise, Ireland is a ‘developing, country, so get cracking!

Dr Brian Hughes, urban and regional economist

Dr Lorcan Sirr, lecturer in DIT and visiting professor or housing at the Universitat Rovira I Virgili, Tarragona, Spain

Extended precis (PDF of full paper)

The publication of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government’s ‘non-statutory’ Planning Policy Statement (PPS) in January 2015, heralds the prospect of the replacement of the National Spatial Strategy (2002-2020) with a National Planning Framework (NPF). The PPS emphasises that future Planning Strategy should be both evidence-based and plan-led.

As a contribution to these developments, this paper presents a demographic approach applied to the spatial planning context for current housing needs and points to compelling reasons for developing Ireland’s cities whilst curtailing the ongoing proliferation of villages, small towns and one-off housing, and for services provision, infrastructural priorities and related policy issues.

The paper’s first consideration is that of Ireland’s imperative for its emerging housing strategy: to improve its economic competitiveness which is compromised by its small-scale urban content. The State’s modest-sized settlements, with their inevitable diseconomies of scale, present economic handicaps to the provision of both public and private sector services. Unsurprisingly, they are the subject of current services-rationalisation, often of a controversial nature.

The outgoing spatial NSS planning policy is based on the definition of Balanced Regional Development (BRD) which is self-contradictory. In a modern economy, the optimal performance of the State is critically dependent on that of its primary contributors and of their large settlements’ ability to generate urban agglomerative spill-over: not on the BRD definitional illusion of achieving the full potential of each area. BRD is the opposite to achieving settlements of ‘Concentrated Lumpiness’, which would be characterised as centripetal agglomeration: of dense, efficient centres of population and their associated clusters of employment.

The outcome from the 2002-2020 National Spatial Strategy is that its BRD policy has encouraged excessive village and small-town proliferation. Over a fifteen year period to the last census, there has been a 30.6% growth in the proliferation of settlements of less than 5,000 since 1996, but especially so in for smaller town and village categories. Thus future spatial planning should place emphasis on the selective locations for new housing so as to complement and promote urban agglomeration. New house types are likely to introduce double-duplex and other innovative features of urban design, reducing the need for car ownership whilst encouraging more sustainable forms of transportation, suitable for short commutes.

The paper also differentiates between the requirements of the two principal areas of State: the Greater Dublin Area (GDA) and the Rest of State (RoS) areas. It finds that in 2011 there are many striking contrasts between the two areas. Dublin has nearly eleven times the average population size of the four RoS cities. The overall average settlement size for each of the seven categories of towns and villages is also greater in the GDA.

GDA house vacancy rates in 2011 were between just one-third and one half of those of the RoS areas, a contrast that has increased since then. This places an increasing need for focused housing supply-demand research. The wastefulness and inefficiencies of higher levels of current housing vacancy, directly corresponds to the remoteness of a county from its nearest city and particularly so in its further distance from Dublin.

Given the fragile sizes of Irish urban settlements, the emerging spatial planning and development imperative should especially facilitate the growth of larger, selected, populated towns and some cities, so as to counteract the extent of small-settlement proliferation in the RoS villages and Non-Nucleated populations. The housing crisis and affordability issue is also linked to the unsustainability of long and medium-distance commuting, given the census evidence and the geography of daytime working population and to Ireland’s economic competitiveness.

The research notes that from the most recent indications of prospective developments in Ireland’s spatial planning strategy, there is still little evidence that the authorities recognise or appreciate the need for an urban agglomeration ‘top-down’ approach, where the alternative focus continues to be dominated by rural generated ‘bottom-up’ strategies, making the task of achieving urban agglomeration difficult. Thus there have been few opportunities in the RoS area to exploit and take advantage of urban agglomeration forces.

Unfortunately, Ireland has always had a spatial record of eschewing its cities. In 1969 the first ‘modern’ spatial strategy, the Buchanan Plan’s objective of achieving an accelerated growth of fifteen or so of the provincial cities and larger towns was politically rejected. Subsequent ‘politically dominated’ planning strategies have sought to ‘give a little to everyone in the audience’ instead of implementing a policy of concentrating the State’s limited capital resources to a few chosen locations which have the potential to grow at a much faster rate than the norm and thereby ‘capture’ the benefits of scale, of critical mass and of urban agglomeration.

The irony is that if today’s Ireland had such ‘concentrated lumpiness’, this policy direction would have considerably mitigated the depth of the recession that has visited so many of its small towns, villages and open countryside. Agglomerative ‘spillovers’ from larger Regional cities and large towns remains the only certain way to counteract rural decline. Ireland has yet to learn that painful urban economic lesson.

Because of the bias favouring town growth, exacerbated by the population deflection from unaffordable housing in the cities, especially for Dublin, their aggregate growth has been much lower than might otherwise have been expected. During 1996-2011 the State population increased by 26.53% whereas the cities grew by just 16.42%, – i.e. even less than the 17.72% for the non-nucleated rural areas and towns/ villages of 5,000 and under.

This paper concludes that the capacity to generate ‘spill-overs’ are currently constrained, limited perhaps to Dublin and to the CASP area surrounding Cork City. Thus, it should come as no surprise that due to the defects of past strategic spatial planning policies, rural emigration is rife and economic downturn is magnified for regions which do not have large towns but especially cities.

Full paper

Dr Brian Hughes, DIT


The assessment last week by the European Environment Agency that Ireland is set to fail to achieve its binding 2020 greenhouse gas emission reduction target comes as no surprise. At 20% below 2005 emission levels, the Irish target is the highest possible in the EU. This in itself is another fateful legacy of ‘Celtic Tiger’, as national targets were assigned based on relative wealth (GDP per capita). As we now know, Ireland’s wealth in the mid-2000s was largely illusory. The consequences now put the government in an unenviable bind of having to make the deepest cuts in emissions while also grappling with the aftermath of one of the deepest European recessions. The line coming from Minister Alan Kelly is that the 2020 target is simply unrealistic and unachievable”. Of course, in the continuous absence of any meaningful strategic efforts to reduce emissions, epitomised by the complete failure to enact a climate change law, it will continue to remain so. Despite the progressive rhetoric on climate change, to date there has been but paltry implementation of actual measures, with the bulk of any emission reductions largely coming as an unintended consequence of the recession.

Inaction on climate policy has been driven by the classic Irish persuasion of brushing inconvenient issues under the carpet, particularly when there are no immediate consequences for doing nothing. Unfortunately, this short-sightedness has only served to dig a deeper hole from which we must now get out of. For under EU law, further procrastination is no longer an option. From now, and each year to 2020, Ireland is under a direct and binding legal obligation to reduce its emissions in a linear fashion. This will not be achieved, and is likely to force the government to avail of flexibility mechanisms and to purchase compliance, such as buying expensive carbon credits. Furthermore, in accordance with the new EU Semester budgetary surveillance process, Ireland is required to achieve its national Europe 2020 targets, which also includes the 20% reduction in greenhouse emissions. The European Commission can issue annual Country Specific Recommendations (CSRs) and these could compel Ireland to introduce specific policy measures and, if necessary, impose financial sanctions. This may include, for example, environmental tax reforms, such as a significant increase in carbon taxes or other user charges (as was included in the 2014 CSRs for Luxembourg, for example). Similar to the current furore over water charges, such fiscal measures would obviously be extremely unpopular.


So what is the scope for reducing emissions in the Ireland? Agriculture and transport together make up approximately 70% of all emissions for the purposes of the 2020 target. As part of its economic recovery plans, the government has been categorical in its position that emissions from agriculture will rise under the massive Food Harvest 2020 expansion plans. In fact, Ireland has been very active in arguing for special greenhouse gas accounting rules for agriculture. However, such rules, if they prove their worth, could not be introduced until at least 2022. As a result, in the short-term a disproportionate burden will have to be placed on the transport sector. A further unfortunate legacy of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ is that from 1990 to 2012 transport was the fastest growing source of emissions, increasing by 113%, mostly due to a threefold increase in the use of private cars. In 2009, the ‘Smarter Travel‘ policy was introduced and proposed that by 2020 car commuting to work should drop from 65% to 45%; alternatives such as walking, cycling and public transport should rise to 55% of total commuter journeys; and that future population and employment growth would predominantly take place in sustainable compact forms, which reduce the need to travel. This policy was a key component of the measures proposed to reduce Ireland’s transport emissions for the purposes of the 2020 target.

However, in the most recent draft ‘Investing in Our Transport Future’ policy document published by the Department of Transport in August, reality has bitten and these ambitious targets have now been abandoned. The report concedes that despite successive national policies which have had the consistent stated objective of promoting modal shift away from private cars and better integrating land-use and transportation, it must now be recognised that these policies have failed. As a result, given the diverse range and dispersed pattern of journey origins and destinations, there is now extremely limited potential for reducing emissions in the transport sector and “current spatial patterns remain very unfavourable to efficient and sustainable transport provision”. According to the report, even achieving widespread modal shift in our cities would yield little emission savings due to the short nature of such trips and the sheer scale of spatial sprawl and bloated commuter belts which have embedded car dependency. The report goes on to conclude that “reducing emissions from transport would require a transformation in the sector, relying on technological innovation and security of alternative fuels supply supported by enabling policies and widespread behavioural change”. What this in effect means is the extensive roll-out of electric vehicles. The government has a target of achieving 10%, or approximately 250,000 electric vehicles by 2020. There are currently around 250 in use. Worldwide there are only around 400,000.

The stored up costs of past planning failures just keep on giving and latest draft transport policy document reads as a pretty damning indictment of the spatial chaos that was allowed to take hold during  the ‘Celtic Tiger’ and the complete failure of the national policy to curb sprawl. Aside from the climate policy implications, as a consequence of the new budgetary realities, major questions are posed in the report as to whether Ireland can now afford to respond to these spatial patterns in terms of investment requirements and service provision costs. We are already seeing the implications of this with the recent decision by the National Transport Authority to approve a further increase in public transport fares.  Options being actively considered include reducing the size and/or level of performance of the funded road and rail network to a more appropriate scale (particularly rail due to its high fixed costs vis-à-vis passenger numbers) together with demand management through fiscal measures, such as road user charging based on distance and time. Clearly, the scope for such additional charges, infrastructure downgrades or service withdrawals is limited by realpolitikthe existing burden of taxation, the hardship being experienced by many families and high levels of household expenditure on transport, where people have no or inadequate access to more sustainable transport modes.

Until now the debate on Ireland’s greenhouse gas reduction targets has largely taken place in the abstract. However, the latest IPCC report this week has further firmed up the scientific evidence and the scale of mitigation required, and this issue is not going to go away. Likewise, the EU has recently agreed a post-2020 framework to reduce emissions by 40% by 2030, with national efforts again distributed on the basis of GDP per capita. Despite the recession, Ireland still has the fifth highest GDP per capita in Europe, guaranteeing a relatively high emission reduction target. In the coming years the unreality will have to end and the choices necessary to reduce emissions will come into sharp relief. None of them will be easy, inexpensive or without controversy. According to a briefing this year by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, in the absence of national mitigation, potential costs of purchasing compliance for the Irish Exchequer for the 2020 to 2030 period could have a cumulative total in the billions and there is cause for concern. Unfortunately, the fixed spatial legacy handed down by past planning failures has locked-in high fossil fuel use and entrenched car dependency which severely limits the choices now available and significantly increases the costs of mitigation options. In climate change policy jargon the ‘least cost principle’ would dictate that spatial planning practice and transport investment should be better and more firmly aligned. However, this lesson continues not to be learned – currently almost 50% of all new houses granted permission are for dispersed car dependent ‘one-off’ dwellings. It will be these same households that will bear the brunt of future transport cost inflation, downgrading of infrastructure and service withdrawals.

Gavin Daly

Yesterday Minister Phil Hogan announced that the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) is to be scrapped and replaced by a new policy in about a year’s time.  He said that said the present ‘strategy had failed’ because ‘the gateway and hub cities and towns never received the resources to ensure their development and “nothing has happened” in the ten years since they were designated.’  Continuing that ‘there was no point in having a designation without the resources.’

It is certainly the case that the NSS did not live up to its expectations, despite its promise and intent.  The initiative failed for a number of reasons, of which resourcing is just one.

First, there were flaws in its initial design with respect to the designation of too many hubs and gateways and there were accusations of stroke politics in location selection.

Second, because it was introduced in 2002 it missed its logical initial resourcing stream, the National Development Plan (NDP) 2000-06.  It did underpin the NDP 2007-13, but then the crisis hit and the NDP got quitely dropped and funding for NSS initiatives, such as the gateways fund, was one of the first things the DECLG dropped from its programme.

Third, there was weak political buy-in across the board, especially within government.  This was made abundantely clear by the decentralisation programme introduced by Charlie McCreevy in 2003 that sought to move government departments and state agencies to just about every location except gateways and hubs.  Decentralisation seriously undermined the rationale and impetus of the NSS.

Fourth, the NSS was not put on a statutory basis and up until 2010 planning authorities only had to give ‘due regard’ to it, rather than complying with it.  In a period of developer-led, laissez faire, localist planning this was a license to largely ignore it.

What this meant was a very partial implementation, though the NSS did have some effects on other policy (e.g. NDP, Transport 21, Rural Ireland 2020, etc) and was significantly boosted by the introduction of regional planning guidelines and the Planning and Development Act (2010) and the introduction of core strategies (in which planning decisions have to demonstrate they fit local, county, regional and national policy objectives).

So what happens now? Is this the end of spatial planning in Ireland?

Well one would hope not. If Ireland ever needed a strategic plan to make the most of limited resources in order to facilitate inward investment, stimulate and support indigenous growth, produce sustainable development and create of better places, it is now.

The logic of spatial planning is to align and coordinate sectoral initiatives (such as transport, energy, jobs, property, utilities, communications, public services, etc) across territory in order to leverage complementarities, reduce redundancy and duplication, increase competitiveness, and create multiplier effects (where the sum is greater than the simple addition of parts).  It does this by selectively prioritising areas for different kinds of activities in line with its demographics and local resources and distributing funds suitable to enable targetted investment and coordinating development across sectors.

Rather than abandoning spatial planning and the NSS, we need to do a fundamental rethink and produce a new NSS that is suitable to the present context. Localism and ad-hocism is not the solution to the economic and social crisis and will not create a sustainable, competitive country into the long term.

The challenge over the next year is to produce a new NSS based on a robust evidence base, learning from international best practice, and involving detailed stakeholder consultation, that is strategic and is prepared to make difficult decisions given limited resources.  Once agreed upon, the new NSS needs to be put on a statutory basis, as advocated in the Mahon Report, and it needs to be implemented through a series of interlocking programmes and initiatives.

My hope is that we can rise to this challenge and produce a spatial planning framework that will serve us well.

Rob Kitchin


For a good introduction to the present NSS, see the recent special edition of Administration 60(3), The National Spatial Strategy: Ten Years On, guest edited by David Meredith and Chris van Egeraat.

Revisiting the National Spatial Strategy ten years onDavid Meredith & Chris van Egeraat


The National Spatial Strategy: Rationale, process, performance and prospects – James A. Walsh

Economics – The missing link in the National Spatial Strategy – Edgar Morgenroth

Perspectives on Ireland’s economic geography: An evaluation of spatial structures – David Meredith, Jim Walsh & Ronan Foley

Gateways, hubs and regional specialisation in the National Spatial Strategy – Chris van Egeraat, Proinnsias Breathnach & Declan Curran

Urban specialisation, complementarity and spatial development strategies on the island of Ireland – Des McCafferty, Chris van Egeraat, Justin Gleeson & Brendan Bartley

Governance and the National Spatial Strategy – Placing spatial policy at the heart of the diagonal public service – Séan O’Riordáin

Shrink smarter? Planning for spatial selectivity in population growth in Ireland – Gavin Daly & Rob Kitchin

At a time when the financial crisis in the Eurozone is seen to cast doubts on the extent to which European institutions act in the collective interests of Europe, it is perhaps instructive to consider the question of the territorial agenda of the European Union. To what extent does the EU have a coherent spatial policy or agenda or do individual sectoral policies have uncoordinated and even contradictory effects?

This is a question which European spatial policy initiatives have sought to address, particularly since the publication of the European Spatial Development Perspective in 1999.

Yesterday (19th May) at a meeting of the Ministers of EU member states responsible for spatial planning and territorial development in the town of Gödöllő, Hungary a new Territorial Agenda for the European Union was agreed upon. With the title ‘Territorial Agenda of the European Union 2020: Towards an Inclusive, Smart and Sustainable Europe of Diverse Regions’ the document follows on from a previous Territorial Agenda published in 2007. In light of the lead role of the Hungarian Presidency, the new Territorial Agenda has been expected to place a renewed emphasis on reducing disparities between Western and Eastern Europe and the particular development challenges faced by Eastern member states. The document supports the principle of ‘territorial cohesion’ which may be interpreted as balanced regional development at the European level:

We believe that territorial cohesion is a set of principles for harmonious, balanced, efficient, sustainable territorial development. It enables equal opportunities for citizens and enterprises, wherever they are located, to make the most of their territorial potentials. Territorial cohesion reinforces the principle of solidarity to promote convergence between the economies of better-off territories and those whose development is lagging behind.

It is further stated that ‘development opportunities are best tailored to the specificities of an area’ indicating that territory matters and regional development policies need to take account of the specific characteristics and diversity of individual regions. This echoes recent arguments for a ‘place-based’ approach to regional development policy rather than a reliance on ‘spatially-blind’ sectoral approaches (such as the Common Agricultural Policy). Suggesting continued support for an interventionist approach it is noted that ‘Regions might need external support to find their own paths to sustainable development, with particular attention to those lagging behind’.

Drawing on an evidenced-based ‘Territorial State and Perspectives’ background document (as yet not in the public domain) the Territorial Agenda identifies 6 main territorial challenges facing the European Union:

  1.   Increased exposure to globalisation: structural changes after the global economic crisis;
  2.  Challenges of EU integration and the growing interdependences of regions;
  3. Territorially diverse demographic and social challenges, segregation of vulnerable groups;
  4. Climate change and environmental risks: geographically diverse impacts;
  5. Energy challenges come to the fore and threaten regional competitiveness;
  6.  Loss of biodiversity, vulnerable natural, landscape and cultural heritage


Informal meeting of Ministers responsible for territorial development and spatial planning, Gödöllő, 19th May

The challenges outlined serve to highlight that regions in Europe face distinct sets of challenges but that there also significant commonalities. In particular the impacts of demographic and climate change are recognised to vary significantly across the European territory. It may be noted that development disparities between East and West (or urban and rural regions) are not specifically mentioned.

The document subsequently identifies six ‘Territorial Priorities’ for the EU, for the purpose of responding the challenges outlined above:

1. Promote polycentric and balanced territorial development

2. Encouraging integrated development in cities, rural and specific regions

3. Territorial integration in cross-border and transnational functional regions

4. Ensuring global competitiveness of the regions based on strong local economies

5. Improving territorial connectivity for individuals, communities and enterprises

6. Managing and connecting ecological, landscape and cultural values of regions

The concepts of polycentric development and integrated development of urban and rural regions are themes which have featured centrally in European spatial policy since the 1990s; although it may be argued that they still require clarification in terms of their intended operationalisation. The identification of territorial integration in cross-border and transnational functional regions reflects a particular commitment in EU regional development policy to reduce border effects and improve cooperation, particularly through the INTERREG programme from which Ireland has benefited significantly. In total, approximately 40% of the territory of the EU is located within border regions.

Implementation of the Territorial Agenda of the European Union is dependent on EU institutions such as the European Commission taking its messages on board as well as actions by member states, regional and local authorities. The ESPON Programme (see also ESPON Ireland website) receives specific mention in relation to its central role in providing the evidence base for European territorial development and cohesion policy. The new Territorial Agenda places particular emphasis, however, on actions by member states. In Ireland, the National Spatial Strategy and National Development are the principal policy mechanisms in this regard. As the EU does not have any competence in spatial planning, the Territorial Agenda therefore does not represent a binding spatial plan for the EU in any sense. It does however provide a strategic policy framework and represents a high level European commitment to the balanced regional development and place-based approaches to policy. Based on the experience of previous European spatial policy documents such as the European Spatial Development perspective, the impact of the Territorial Agenda may be significant albeit not always directly visible!

Cormac Walsh

Earlier posts on this blog pointed to the current period of crisis as an opportunity for rethinking accepted ideas, policies and practices in relation to future planning and development in Ireland (for example here and here). The introduction of a new Government with a fresh mandate and (potentially) fresh ideas (see here for a critical perspective!) provides a further opportunity to critically reflect on the role of spatial development policy and practice in the current context.
Understood in its broad sense, spatial planning refers to a state-led interventionist activity that seeks to pursue particular objectives for society through a focus on the diversity and specific qualities of individual places and social and economic relations across space. In contrast to traditional forms of land-use planning, strategic spatial planning claims to provide a focus for the coordination of the spatial impacts of other sectoral policies and public sector investment decision-making processes. In this way the National Spatial Strategy and Regional Planning Guidelines should be expected to inform the proposed new National Development Plan (2012 – 2019) and the decision to progress a new technical university for the Southeast in agreed Programme for Government.

The ‘governance capacity’ of spatial planning strategies is however critically dependent on their capacity to steer the geographical distribution of development and provide a reliable indication of the intensity, quantity and type of development anticipated occurring over the period of the plan. If this capacity is absent then higher level objectives in terms of providing a spatial dimension to sectoral policies will remain aspirational. Unfortunately the record of the past decade indicates that the governance capacity of spatial plans in Ireland, at national, regional and local levels has been rather weak indicating a need to fundamentally rethink some of the basic premises of planning and development thinking in Ireland.

The pointers outlined below are intended as an initial contribution to progressing the debate rethinking planning and development in the current context:

1.    Future planning and development policy and practice needs to make a clear distinction between development in its socioeconomic sense and spatial development. Potential economic benefits in terms of employment generation or commercial rates revenue cannot be the overriding factors in decision-making on spatial development, i.e. the future development of the built and natural environment.

2.    Spatial planning needs to be founded on realistic assessments of projected future growth (or decline) in population, numbers of households, numbers in the labour force and of the economy more generally. Spatial planning decision-making should therefore be needs-based and forward looking, thus reducing the risks of both undersupply and oversupply as we have witnessed recent years.

3.    Spatial planning policy and practice needs to be founded on acceptance that significant areas of the country most likely will not witness significant levels of development or employment creation and may need to plan for continued decline and population loss due to emigration. In this respect, Ireland has much learn from other parts of Europe and in particular parts of eastern Germany, where post-reunification expectations of rapid development have gradually given way to an acceptance of a need to plan for declining population, ‘shrinking cities’ and reduced economic circumstances.

4.    Spatial policy needs to balance normative vision with a pragmatic orientation. The NSS and Regional Planning Guidelines have provided a valuable frame of reference in terms of outlining desirable future spatial development objectives and patterns. The laudable policy goals of balanced regional development and ‘physical consolidation’ of the Dublin metropolitan area need to balanced with an explicit recognition and readjustment of future spatial development prospects in light of the experience of recent development trends. These development trends are well documented and include extensive peri-urban development, ghost estates and a markedly variable performance of Gateway cities.

5.    Spatial strategies should attempt to create a space for shared understanding and agreement among key stakeholders, including political representatives planning professionals, community development and environmental interests. Whether the proposed ‘democratically decided Regional or City Plan’ (Programme for Government, p. 27) with a significantly reduced role for City/County Managers is the best approach to this is of course another question.

Cormac Walsh